Ahead of the Curve

Blue Rock’s large selection of mosaic tiles includes multiple sizes and shapes in marble, limestone, glass, and ceramic, used for backsplashes and accents in wall applications.
Samples of granite for countertops on display in the showroom.

Blue Rock tile designer Julie Wason brings style and practicality to Maine homes

A homeowner who visits Blue Rock Tile and Stone’s showroom in Westbrook to choose tile for a bathroom or kitchen may find it challenging to make a decision. Displayed around the octagonal room are literally hundreds of choices: mosaics in marble, glass, and stone and tiles that look like beach pebbles, brick, or even rough-hewn wood planks. The last option is one Blue Rock designer Julie Wason attributes to a significant game changer in the world of tile: high-definition digital photography. “They can take an image of a worn wood floor and put it on a porcelain product that isn’t going to show scratch marks or be affected by water,” says Wason. “So now we have this beautiful, long-wearing product that’s very organic in appearance.”

A large part of Wason’s job is to help Blue Rock’s clients make the tough decisions. While she has worked for the company for just three years, the native of Caribou has spent most of her career in the tile business, including 23 years in leadership positions at large high-end stone and tile fabricators in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 2007 she convinced her husband, who is from Hawaii, to return with her to Maine. She served for 15 years on state boards of the National Kitchen and Bath Association—which promotes professionalism and career development in the trade—and was the chapter representative for Maine in 2017.

Blue Rock has evolved significantly since its start in 1920 as a landscaping business. Working in concrete and stone, the company was responsible for paving sections of Interstates 95 and 295. Over time, it has shifted its focus from exterior to interior products for home design, adding a countertop division in the early 1990s and a tile division in 2010. The company opened a second location in Kennebunk in 2011, where it recently opened a new showroom, and has plans to expand the Westbrook showroom to incorporate more products. “We still have aggregate, but we don’t do the flagstone or exterior materials anymore,” says Wason. “Our clients are looking for ideas to do a custom backsplash, or a fireplace surround, or flooring.”

Wason usually works directly with homeowners, who are often referred to Blue Rock by builders or kitchen and bath designers. “I never lead with, ‘Well, tell me what you’re looking for,’” she says. “I always want to find out about their lifestyle, because that really impacts the type of product that will be a good match for them.” With kitchen countertops, for example, there is no single perfect material. Granite, which is one of the most durable materials, has “been around for thousands of years,” Wason continues. “Real marble is gorgeous—they use it in Europe all the time. But the consumer needs to understand, it is going to scratch, stain, pit, and bruise. If you’re a cook and use cast iron, engineered stone that looks like marble would be a better choice.”

Asked to identify a favorite new product, Wason immediately points out mosaic tile with a variety of textures in each square—honed, bush hammered, brushed, and polished. “Texture is really huge in design right now,” she says. “People will say that they want to start with neutrals, but then as we start looking at products, we get into things that have texture, which provides visual interest.” Clients who are planning to stay in their home for a long time are especially motivated to make bolder, more emotionally inspired choices. “I just designed a gorgeous blue bathroom with a full custom shower in a petrified-wood-look tile infused with blue-grays and oaky tones—high-gloss, big 8- by 48-inch planks, with all glass on the front,” Wason says. “My client said, ‘I want to get in there every day and just feel like I’m out in nature and at peace in this bathroom.’ It’s going to be stunning.”

Wason is also a freelancer for Bobbi Brown cosmetics, which gives her an unusual edge in knowing what tile works best in bathrooms. “As crazy as it sounds, you need to look at complexion colors, and what is really going to make you look good when you drag in there in the morning to get ready for work.” The taupe shades of a few years ago are not flattering for many people, she says, and are being replaced by gray tones, notably greige—a combination of grey and beige. Beyond their obvious utility, bathrooms are increasingly being designed as places of refuge from busy lives, where “people can just take a breath and be alone for a few minutes in a beautiful space that’s easy to clean and isn’t going to break the budget.” Especially in Maine, “people want working beauty,” Wason says. “We want things to last a long time without having to spend a lot of time taking care of them.”

That said, her clients are more educated than ever before, encouraging designers to keep pace. “They’re watching HGTV. They’re reading magazines and getting design inspiration. They’re seeking out different products than they would normally have done 20 years ago,” Wason says. “And the industry here needs to embrace that.”